Wednesday, 2 March 2011

"Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus."

So, a little while back I read through T.H. White's The Once and Future King. I'd seen someone asking about the Arthurian legend and having it recommended, which aroused my curiosity, also it's supposed to be the favourite book of Professor X in X-Men, and who am I to argue with a character played by Patrick Stewart?

It's notable that while the Arthurian legend is an important part of British culture, there aren't that many details of it that are especially well known. Partly because adaptations of it will often pick and choose which elements they want to use, and generally mess around with it, of course. But in any case, I think I can list the main elements of the Arthurian legend of which most people would be aware:

1. Arthur is raised not knowing he's to be the King.
2. Merlin.
3. Arthur becomes King by pulling the sword from the stone.
4. Excalibur (Note this is not the same sword as 3)
5. Morgan Le Fay.
6. Camelot.
7. The Round Table.
8. Knights with names such as Lancelot, Galahad, Gawaine, etc.
9. Queen Guenever.
10. Quest for the Holy Grail.
11. Lancelot and Guenever have an affair.
12. Mordred.

Well, I suppose a decent number of people will know about Uther and Igraine as well. But that's still not a great deal. There are vast swathes missing from what could be considered common knowledge.
My own knowledge of the Arthurian legend, prior to reading The Once and Future King, was derived, in reverse order, from the Babylon 5 episode A Late Delivery From Avalon, the 1998 TV miniseries Merlin, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the Disney Sword in the Stone. And maybe a little bit of general cultural osmosis. I haven't seen the new Merlin TV series, but from what I've heard they're playing all kinds of havoc with the original course of the story anyway, so it wouldn't have been a great help in that regard. (Note this is not a comment on the quality of said series. I actually assume it's pretty good, since people seem to like it and Anthony Head is in it. It's just not the original Arthurian legend by any stretch of the imagination)

Of course, The Once and Future King also has gaps. White frequently refers to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and mentions events which occur in that work which he has not bothered to adapt for his own. For example, early on in The Queen of Air and Darkness Arthur mentions Excalibur, but White never describes how he got it. This is rather frustrating, partly because I don't have a copy of the Malory, and partly because I love White's writing style and don't know if Malory's will hold the same charm for me.
So you know, The Once and Future King is split up into (And I believe was originally released as) four books, The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.

The Once and Future King is a good example of what I mentioned in my post about Nerdfighters and the Vlogbrothers - about the difference between books for adults and books for children. Because in the The Sword in the Stone, the story starts out very innocent, with the simple joy of Arthur as a child seeing all the wonders Merlyn shows him. The kind of simple joy, indeed, which is suitable to be made into a Disney film (Though oddly, according to wikipedia, they originally bought the rights to The Ill-Made Knight, which is nothing like as Disney-esque). But then as the story goes on it loses those simple pleasures and instead becomes steeped in the pathos as things start to go wrong. But it still retains much of the same charm and is just beautiful at the end.

So onto details. The book starts out with an interesting view of pre-Arthurian England. White uses some mild anachronisms in order to portray the events in terms familiar to his readers, but of course this remains nonetheless a somewhat unfamiliar, somewhat fantastical world, in which one may hunt unicorns and be captured by fairies, and in which it is a normal enough thing to talk to your friend over drinks about how you did some good questing today. For the first chapter I was interested to see how the setting was established, including some information about the way Sir Ector's castle was run, but in the second chapter I was truly enchanted by the storytelling. From the moment King Pellinore entered the story I fell in love with him just as the Wart did, with his good, if at times ineffective, nature and his endless quest for the Beast Glatisant. And of coursein the following chapter we meet Merlyn, who is to a great extent the driving force of the story while he is in it, and also rather steals the show with the anachronisms caused by his backwards aging and resultant memories of the future.

While reading The Sword in the Stone I was surprised by how much from the Disney adaptation was in fact, in the original. Like the fact Merlyn has a pet owl named Archimedes, and that he uses magic to make his housework do itself. Likewise the sound of music when Wart touches the sword, getting turned into animals, and the phrase "Blow me to Bermuda!" Though in the book the full phrase is "Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!" Also it comes earlier in the story and is resolved quicker.
In fact the only notable differences between the book and the film are what animals Wart is transformed into, length (Some sections obviously were removed from the film to keep it short), and most notably that in the book Ector and Kay are very much the Wart's family (adoptive, but very fond of him), rather than the mean-spirited and selfish characters they are in the film. Oh, and of course in the book one can clearly see political subtext in the 'Wart is turned into an animal' sections, rather than it just being purely for the fun of it. Because of course the actual purpose of Merlyn transforming him is not for him to enjoy himself, but rather to prepare him for being King of England, and to ensure he will be a good King, by teaching him to think. Arthur later advises Lancelot and Guenever never to let anyone teach them to think, because it makes one's life so hard (Or at least it did in his case), but I don't think he would truly condemn the idea.

In The Queen of Air and Darkness, we get a look at how the morality of Arthurian Britain was different to now, though we do still have to be reminded of this. The big point in The Queen of Air and Darkness  is that the world largely operates on the principle of Might is Right, and, after being prompted by Merlyn to think about such things, Arthur conceives the idea of the Round Table to redirect Might so that it is only used for Right. Perhaps a subtle distinction, but an important one. The other point is that The Queen of Air and Darkness is only maybe half about Arthur. The other half is instead introducing us to the Orkneys - Queen Morgause (Who in more recent versions may be conflated with her sister Morgan Le Fay) and her sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth, all future Knights of the Round Table.
This is highly important for the same reasons that, as White mentions at some point, "Malory called his very long book Le Morte d'Arthur, the death of Arthur." It all becomes relevant much later on. And the reason for this is down to the familial links. Morgause is the daughter of Igraine and her first husband the King of Cornwall. She then also had Arthur by King Uther Pendragon, making Arthur and Morgause half-siblings, but also, given the circumstances of that coupling, creating something of a vendetta between the Orkneys and the Cornwalls on one side and the Pendragons and the English on the other. At the end of The Queen of Air and Darkness, because Merlyn absent-mindedly forgot to tell Arthur who his mother was, Arthur is seduced by Morgause, and nine months later Mordred is born. Which leads to all sorts of problems.
Incest is bad! (Actually it's really not that simple, as I will discuss later. I mean, incest is generally regarded as bad, but in this it's not a case of a heavy handed 'Mordred is evil because incest is bad' moral as you might expect it to be)

Onto The Ill-Made Knight. The Ill-made Knight, or Le Chevalier Mal Fet, is a name Lancelot gives himself while he's growing up. This book is almost entirely focussed on Lancelot. It's still part of the overarching story of Arthur, but The Ill-Made Knight is really about Lancelot.
Interesting points about White's portrayal of Lancelot (Which apparently were original to White and do not appear in other accounts): Firstly, Lancelot is kind of ugly. Physically 'ill-made', something about his face is just supposed to be oddly malformed. Secondly, he is apparently slightly sadistic. He enjoys winning his fights for this reason. But the crux of the point is that because of these two traits he has something of an inferiority complex. He feels compelled to make up for his own failings, and the way he does that is by becoming the best knight in the world. In particular, it is mentioned that it is because of his mild sadism that he is always merciful to his opponents where he can be, because he is always holding himself in check in that regard. While certainly the character would work without these elements, they do add a certain something to him I think. He is a very compelling figure as White writes him.

OK, next point - I realise I have certainly been influenced to some extent by the fact I have friends who read lots of fanfiction, including a fair amount of slash. This has influenced me to spot the potential for such sometimes in things I'm reading. But in the early parts of Ill-Made Knight, you really don't need to be looking for it. White talks explicitly about how Lancelot is in love with Arthur. And while one may bring up the fact that love had different connotations in those days, there is then also the fact that White also mentions that on meeting Guenever, Lancelot is jealous of her.
Given the extent to which Lancelot's love of Arthur is built up, it seems odd that he then falls in love with Guenever, but it does work well enough in the book. I remember feeling that Lancelot's inner conflict about it could perhaps have been brought up more, and then a couple of pages later it was. Perhaps that would have been better placed a bit earlier, but it was nonetheless there. And in some ways I feel it's an interesting and effective way of structuring something - it means we have a reaction to the events without an explanation of the internal reasoning of the characters which led to them, then get that reasoning and have to re-evaluate our opinions. I'll be bringing this up again later on.
Now, I don't want to get into the complications of the Lancelot/Guenever relationship, particularly with regard to Elaine. You can read the book yourself. Suffice to say that Lancelot performs a miracle, saving Elaine from a curse which could be lifted only by the best knight in the world, and she falls in love with him. By deceit, she manages to seduce him, and she bears him a son, Galahad. While much more could be said about Elaine, the only reason I brought her up at all in this instance was to explain Galahad's origins.

So now, the morality. Because that really gets noticeable in this one. You have to get used to the fact that, basically, everything is resolved by fighting (Civil law has yet to be invented, so we have trial by combat, and generally disputes are solved with a sword), and death seems to be viewed as the standard end to a fight, or at least a fairly common one. As such, killing has less of an impact. One initially becomes used to the fact that basically the bad knights and barons and so on, who are trying to keep going with their viewpoint of Might is Right are stopped primarily by killing them. (OK, this isn't plan A. Plan A is to make them join the Round Table and put their Might to better use. But failing that, kill them) But then it transpires that this can also be applied to characters who are at least nominally 'good guys', as it were. Members of the Round Table. First, King Lot, father of the Orkneys, is accidentally killed in a joust by Pellinore. Now, this is shocking, but Lot is generally indicated to have been a bit of a bad sort, it is stated to have been an accident, and one is sure it must have been, because Pellinore is the kind of man who wouldn't deliberately harm a fly. But nonetheless one is shaken by this turn of events. And of course this becomes another vendetta, and Pellinore is eventually killed by one or several of the Orkneys (Who I believe have by this point been joined by Mordred) in revenge. At this point, different morality or no, I kind of lost respect for Arthur. Because, as I mentioned, I fell in love with the bumbling King Pellinore just as he did, and yet he does nothing about Pellinore's death. I regain my respect for him later on, but at this point I was just apalled.
A further and extensive exploration of the morality of The Once and Future King can probably be done while looking at the quest for the Grail - in the way people go about it, the way they react to how other people go about it, and in particular the way they react to Galahad. Likewise of course the way the reader reacts to Galahad is interesting. To be honest, the full details might be more fitting in a post on religion, since it's very much connected to their religion (Which makes sense, on the quest for the Holy Grail). I may well do such a post at some point, so I'll restrict myself to discussing Galahad at this point. Actually I may not even say that much about him.
So, Galahad is generally disliked by the other knights who come back having failed in the quest, basically because he's inhuman in his rigid adherence to what presumably is basically Biblical morality. Now, I'm not wholly opposed to the idea, but I do feel he is inhuman beyond that, simply for his described tendency not  to actually speak to people. There are a few mentions of him turning up, doing some good, though possibly annoying, deed, and then riding off without so much as a word, barely if at all even acknowledging the people he has just helped. And it seems that when he does speak he is insufferably self-righteous and superior. Now for one thing it just occurred to me that I'm not sure how this meshes with traditional christian morality, since surely he is thus committing the cardinal sin of pride? Shouldn't he be humble? But more significant (Especially since I personally have issues with the fact pride is considered a sin) is simply the inhumanity of it. When Lancelot is asked about this, he says, as I recall, "Are angels supposed to be human?" And I feel this sums up the point of Galahad's character in the book (Incidentally, we never actually meet him, we merely hear other people's accounts of him), and it's not a character which appeals to me. Because he does perhaps fit a traditional view of an angel. Without getting into a debate about to what extent I agree with the espoused morality, Galahad quite clearly appears to follow it, to the letter, not because he has chosen to be this way, but rather it seems because he simply is this way. Like an angel, he embodies the ideals but has no free choice in the matter, and as such I don't feel he can be held up as a great hero the way Lancelot can. It'd be like considering a cat to be a hero because it chases mice. Whereas Lancelot has found his faith to a greater extent than ever before through this quest, but he remains irrevocably human; to quote Terry Pratchett, "where the falling angel meets the rising ape." Lancelot doesn't embody christian virtues as his son did, he had to choose them, and to struggle against the lesser elements of himself, the weaknesses of his human nature, and that is what makes him a more interesting character by far.

As a sidenote, since I brought up Discworld, there was one other bit in this book which made me think of it - at one point there is another miracle which it is said can be performed only by the best knight in the world. And while Lancelot was very keen to perform his first miracle, rescuing Elaine, at this one he is much more fearful. Because what if he can't do it? The precise reasoning for his fear is because due to Elaine and then the affair with Guenever he feels he is no longer pure and will therefore be unable to perform any more miracles, but it does also evoke to a certain the point that the price of being the best in the world is that you always have to be the best in the world.

And so we move onto The Candle in the Wind, wherein everything falls apart. Well, in fact, they were already falling apart a little bit. The point of the quest for the Grail was to try and keep the Table working for good. Because once it was established, after a while, the kind of injustice it was created to stop, the Might is Right thinking, was more or less eliminated, leaving Arthur with the problem of 150 knights, most of whom still believe to some extent in their Might, for all that it's been redirected. Hence the quest for the Grail, to encourage the knights to be better, more holy. But in the end, the less holy knights failed, while the most holy succeeded and never returned, leaving the Table worse off than before, with some of the old Might, and other, social, fashions introduced by the likes of Mordred. And so at this point Arthur begins to develop the idea of civil law, to be constructed purely on the principles of Right, without Might. Thus to hold the whole thing together and make it work.
It doesn't work, as the first use of the new laws is to convict Queen Guenever for treason, in the form of her having committed adultery with Lancelot. Of course he saves her from her execution, but in doing so it seems that he has killed Gareth and Gaheris, both his friends, who though they stood among the guards, were unarmed and unarmoured. Though it's never stated, I feel it's by far more likely that Mordred killed his half-brothers himself, in order to spark the war which then ensues. While Arthur and Gawaine are fighting against Lancelot in France, Mordred is left as Regent, since, illegitimate and son of an incestuous union though he be, he is Arthur's only child. And he takes the opportunity, after some time, to declare Arthur dead and attempt to marry Guenever himself. Thus prompting all to return from France for an ensuing civil war, and thus all falls apart. I know some of what happened from Babylon 5, but White ends his narrative the night before the battle, with Arthur simply musing on his life. It's a scene full of beautiful pathos, and now I want to go back to the start of The Candle in the Wind and explain how I regained my respect for Arthur.

This is another instance of judging an event before you know the reasoning for it, and re-evaluating afterwards, because this definitely impinges on the death of King Pellinore and Arthur's lack of response. The crucial information is regarding the life of Mordred.
Arthur actually says that Mordred  is not too unlike himself. With the differences that Mordred is physically weaker, which left him somewhat out of place with all the jousting and so on at the court of Camelot; and also that Mordred was raised by Morgause, and she corrupted him. And that this is the reason for how he turned out, far more than the simple fact of the incest. As such, really, Morgause becomes the only true villain of the piece, since she is responsible for how Mordred turned out - and indeed, towards the end it is strongly indicated that Mordred is actually insane. He becomes a rather sad, if still frightening, figure.
Well, this explains Mordred, but what about Arthur? Well, while Mordred was not inherently evil just because he was the child of incest, some of Arthur's advisors convinced him so. As such, Arthur panicked, basically, and felt he had to kill the baby Mordred. But Morgause had gone into hiding, so he didn't know where Mordred would be born. So he ordered that all babies born within the appropriate time frame be taken, put on a ship, and the ship sank.
An utterly reprehensible action, to be sure. And it didn't even work, since Mordred survived. Only most of the other babies died. But like Lancelot's sadistic tendencies, this then served as a driving force for everything else Arthur did. Of course, it naturally led to him being a bit cautious about doing anything against the Orkneys, since he didn't want to go too far, as he did then in that time of panic. And in general, I think since this action was taken in panic, as an emotional and instinctive overreaction to the fearful urgings of his advisors, I feel this further galvanised him to think everything through. Because his instincts had failed him that time, and why should they not do so again?
So while he did what he did in the rest of his life because he felt it was right, but also because he felt he was a bad person and he needed to try to make up for it, even though in his eyes there was no way he could make up for it. And to this end he tried to codify everything, because if the rules were right, and he followed the rules, then he wouldn't make a mistake and go wrong again as he did then. And this is why he did nothing when Pellinore accidentally killed Lot, when some of the Orkneys (Probably deliberately) killed Pellinore, and why he followed the laws he had laid down and tried to ensure that his wife would be burned for treason, despite the fact that he hoped in himself that Lancelot would save her.
Now, I don't agree that he is a bad person. Like Lancelot and Guenever, I feel he simply made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, and since he was an absolute monarch, he had more power so it makes sense that his mistakes were correspondingly larger.
But this is what grants the final scene, in which Arthur speaks to a young lad who is supposed to be Thomas Malory, its great beauty and pathos. Because here is the tragic figure of the old man who made one mistake, and who tried to make up for it all the rest of his life. Who always wanted to do the right thing, but was never quite sure how. Who spent ages upon ages thinking through how to ensure that the right things would be done, by him and by others, only to have all his great efforts crumble around him. And who, at the very end, only wanted nothing more than that it should be remembered that he tried to do the right thing, and that at least some of his ideas survive so that others might have an easier time of it than he did.

As I said, in chapter 2 I fell in love with Pellinore as the Wart did. In chapter 3 I was enchanted by Merlyn and remained so as long as he remained in the book. Throughout The Ill-Made Knight and particularly at the point of the quest for the Grail, when comparing him with his son, I felt Lancelot to be perhaps one of the greatest heroic figures I had ever read. But thanks to that final book, and in particular the ending, Arthur still remains my favourite character of the work as a whole. The most touchingly human, the most sympathetic, and the best of them.

Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King.

1 comment:

  1. Well that was fascinating ^_^ I really enjoyed reading your reactions to all of the characters.

    Now want to read the Once and Future King, but also all of Discworld. Unsurprisingly.

    'Merlin' really does use an entirely different backstory for every single character... ah well. As you said, it is good despite that :) It's just not the place to go looking for the original Arthurian legend.